By Paul Orselli
The City Museum in St. Louis meets my criteria for a “museum worth a special trip.”
Clustered inside, outside, and around a hulking industrial building that was once a shoe factory, visitors to The City Museum will find interesting (and sometimes slightly scary, if not outright dangerous) things around every corner.
You immediately get a sense of the place as you approach the tall brick structure — as you look up you see half of a full-size school bus sticking off the roof of the building. Immediately your mind begins to race with questions: How did that bus get up there? Why did somebody put a bus up there? Who in the world would put a bus up there?
Similar questions will occur to you as you slide down a giant slide, see a man operating a shoelace-making machine, or investigate exhibitions about such unlikely subjects as toasters or door knockers!
The driving force behind The City Museum was Bob Cassilly, a classically trained sculptor. (Ironically, Mr. Cassilly died when a piece of earth moving equipment turned over on him while he was working on a separate artistic park project.) The City Museum itself opened in 1997 to incredible acclaim and has kept up its amazing growth by adding new exhibits and attractions.
One of the things I like best about The City Museum is the idiosyncratic artistic visions that are allowed to run wild alongside an inherent trust in the intelligence of its visitors. Many things are built and happen at the Museum that other institutions are too timid to try like multi-storey outdoor climbing structures made of steel and rebar that include a real(!) jet fighter body, or slightly dark and scary tunnels under fanciful aquaria covered with award-winning tile mosaics, or a giant industrial bucket (nicknamed “The Puking Pig”) that fills with water and regularly dumps hundreds (thousands?) of gallons of water down a huge trough over and over.
It all sounds a bit like a fun house or a dream rather than a museum, doesn’t it? What about exhibits you might ask? Well The City Museum also has those in spades! Serious and sober exhibitions about architecture or the aforementioned display of toasters are spread around the floors of the old factory. In fact, on my first visit to The City Museum I was charmed by the exhibition on the history of toasters
and its interesting admixture of elements.
For history/technology/industrial design buffs there are chronologically arranged displays of toasters that help give one the sense of this ubiquitous appliance. For breakfast food buffs, there is the wonderful addition of a volunteer surrounded by working toasters and a big loaf of bread, offering to make you a piece of toast. Because of this, even before you see the exhibition entrance you keep thinking, “Is that toast I smell?”
So pack your bags for St. Louis! After you see the giant Gateway Arch, point your feet in the direction of The City Museum.
About the author:
For over 30 years, Paul Orselli has worked to create inventive and playful museums and exhibits. He is now the President and Chief Instigator at POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) an exhibit design and development corporation that he founded.
Paul has consulted on museum projects throughout North America, Europe, and the Middle East. His clients include such notable organizations as the New York Hall of Science, the Exploratorium, the National Science Foundation, and Science Projects in London. He has taught and lectured at universities on museum topics and has presented at professional conferences throughout North America and Europe.
Paul has also been the editor and originator of the three best-selling Cheapbooks, published by ASTC, and has served on the board of NAME (National Association for Museum Exhibition). He lives on Long Island with his wife and “in-house exhibit testing crew” of four children.